Submitted by frankjaha on January 14, 2005

Why ‘an’ in front of an ‘h’-word?

I have often come across cases where the rule that you only put ‘an’ in front of a word starting with a vowel seems to have been violated, as e. g. in:

“What’s needed is (a) conclusive research and (b) an holistic approach to changing the nation’s dietary habits”.

I have also seen “an historic event”. Can someone enlighten me as to what’s happening here?

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Hello, Frank. One of two things is happening here:

1) The writer does not pronounce the H in those words.

2) The writer is being "hypercorrect." What I mean is that the writer actually thinks that there is a rule that you should use "an" before words that are spelled with an H. There is no such rule.

The rule is simply that YOU use "an" before words that YOU pronounce with a beginning vowel sound, and "a" for words that YOU pronounce with a beginning consonant sound, regardless of the actual spelling of the word.

It may actually be the only hard-and-fast rule in the language. :)

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The trick I learned was that if it feels weird to say it with "a", use "an". That's the whole reason the word exists. Sometimes that includes words that don't start with vowels. Once in a while you can find a vowel word that doesn't need "an", though I can't think of any off the top of my head.

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GP, get outa town! :-)
Some British (or Irish probably) may not pronounce the H in some words. 'Ope instead of Hope for example in Cockney accent.
You would say "an hour" because the H is mute there. So as SW said it merely depends on the pronounciation and not on the spelling. (Unless your English teacher was "an" GP!!)
Have a look at this too: http://painintheenglish.com/post.asp?id=152

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If I remember well (but English is NOT my mothertongue!), vowel words that doesn't need "an" are, for instance, words that start with "u" (useful, unit, etc.). Do you agree?

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If I remember well (but English is NOT my mothertongue!), vowel words that don't need "an" are, for instance, words that start with "u" (useful, unit, etc.). Do you agree?

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No, Chiara, "useful" and "unit," like "university" and "Europe" and all similar words, begin with a consonant sound, so they take "a" rather than "an."

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Yes, that's exactly what I meant! I wrote that they don't need "an", in the sense they take "a".
(Ok, this is the proof that English is not my mothertongue...)
Anyway, thank you for your answer: now I am sure about this rule.

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Chiara, you said it right the first time, so don't lose your self-esteem :) Speedwell probably just misread.

I agree with Speed about hypercorrectness, which pestilential blight seems to infect grammar teachers all across the lower grades, causing their students to give up on what seems to be a completely nonsensical language when they should instead be enjoying it. Wow, speaking of nonsensical language, say that last sentence ten times fast!

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Joachim, you're right... Chiara, I did misunderstand you, partially. You said "an" would not be used for words beginning with "u," and then you gave examples of "u" words that DO use "an."

Just remember that some "u" words go one way and some the other, depending on how you say them.

Something related that I was thinking about is that the use of "a" or "an" depends on the word immediately following, not on the noun to which the article refers. So you could have:

"A hope" (or as Goossun's Cockney fellow would say, "an 'ope"), but:
"A forlorn hope" (the Cockney would say "A forlorn 'ope")

Also good to remember that in American English, at least, the pronunciation of the vowel in "the" varies by the following word's initial letter in just the same way. You would pronounce "thuh" before words you pronounce with a beginning consonant, and "thee" before words you pronounce with a beginning vowel.

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I believe that "an" before a silent H is a remnant of French. In French this is called a liason and functions the same way that it does now in English, which is simply to make words flow into one another, rather than having to pause in speech to enunciate seperate vowel sounds. Hope that helps.

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Oh, pish-posh. :)

"Modern" French (that is, not Old French) is probably responsible for most, if not all, English words beginning with a silent H. It has nothing to do with the ancient English pronunciation rule governing the use of "a" and "an."

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Hi,
Look at this..
"He is an M.L.A"
You pronounce it as 'em' 'el' 'a' so you have to use "an" here

But in ...
"He is a magician"
you have "m" sound

Regards,
Ram.

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speedwell's rule is the one i have been told to use all the years of english lessons and i think thats the one most ppl abide by and shld use.

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speedwell, you seem a bit confused. You wrote to Chiara: `then you gave examples of "u" words that DO use "an."´
Ehm no she didn't, which you incidentally yourself mentioned in a previous note.

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The Chicago Manual of Style says:

Before a pronounced "h", or long "u" (or "eu"), and such words as "one", the indefinite article should be "a."

Examples: a hotel, a historic study, a euphonious word, such a one, a union, But an honor, and an heir.

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So is it "uh" historic moment or "ae" historic moment? Either it rhymes with "day" or "duh"...

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I think I have read elsewhere on this site that if the first "h" syllable is unstressed then "an" is ok (optional?), but if it is stressed then "a" should be used. I'm not sure if I agree, by the way, but here's an example:

An historic event... (hisTORic)

but:

A history of... (HIStory)

We're talking about words where the H is not silent. If the H is silent (hour, honor, etc.) then it's always "an".

Funny, I recall being taught in grammar school that using "an" before unsilent H's was not the norm, but allowable.

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